When the remake of ‘Vacation’ was first announced, the internet crashed under the weight of a collective groan. The original film and its Christmas sibling are undeniable comedy classics with an ideal combination of satirical wit, crowd-pleasing slapstick, and just enough family sentiment. It’s almost impossible to get that combination right, as ‘European Vacation’ and to a lesser extent ‘Vegas Vacation’ proved. Yet, if you can remove those two entries from your mind and remember the depths the franchise has sunk to (don’t forget ‘Christmas Vacation 2’ and those horrible motel commercials), this new iteration has plenty of laughs. Maybe even enough to earn another Christmas sequel if audiences show up.
This time the movie is about Rusty (Ed Helms), now a grown-ass man with his own family, but just as awkward as his father. Typically, every summer vacation for his family involves the same boring trip to the same boring cabin, but this year he wants to take the fam’ on a road trip to Wally World. Co-writers/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (who previously wrote ‘Horrible Bosses’ and are set to script the next ‘Spider-Man’) have some fun with meta humor commenting on the fact that this is a sequel/remake. (The highlight involves a nostalgic trip through a photo book of the previous movies even though the kids were played by different actors every time.) Then Rusty rents a ridiculous family car filled with built in gags (two chugging gas tanks, suicide doors, odd mirrors, screaming GPS, etc.), shoves his wife (the perpetually underrated Christina Applegate) and two sons (the charmingly geeky Skyler Gisondo and pintsized foul-mouthed bully Steele Stebbins) inside and they hit the road.
From there, ‘Vacation’ is essentially a sketch comedy movie with car-travel connecting the sketches. Hilarious cameos pile up from the likes of Tim Heidecker, Keegan-Michael Key and Charlie Day, with each given some sort of darkly comedic odyssey to put the family through. The tone is broad and lightly anarchistic with all manner of bodily secretions and taboos milked for laughs.
Daley and Goldstein are clearly reverent fans of the original ‘Vacation’ and tap into the National Lampoon subversion and hard R shenanigans that many people forget were inherent to that flick. The biggest highlight is a stop-off to visit Rusty’s sister Audrey (the always welcome Leslie Mann), where Chris Hemsworth scores some big giggles as a twisted Right-wing douchebag and beefcake with a massive… ego. Other stops include a nostalgic trip through Applegate’s boozed-up college days (giving her a chance to do some top notch vomit humor) and pretty much anything else that’ll give Helms a chance to do his hopelessly geeky and politely embarrassed routine in the face of some sort of humiliation. Not all of the gags land, but the beauty of this sort of sketch structure is that if one sequence doesn’t tickle your fancy, you only have to wait a few minutes for something that will. The only real bummer is seeing Chevy Chase desperately mug for laughs during his inevitable cameo. Chances are that Daley and Goldstein probably wrote him some funny material, but he abandons it in favor of tired physical business that went out of fashion somewhere in the middle of the Carter administration.
By virtue of the fact that ‘Vacation’ reboots a beloved comedy institution, it’s basically set up to fail with critics. The original ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ is kind of a masterpiece in how it weaves together satirical nastiness and relatable family observations. (John Hughes and Harold Ramis were quite the team of masterminds, after all.) Truthfully, the new ‘Vacation’ does fall flat whenever it attempts to pull back from its cartoonish excess and deliver anything resembling family sentiment or reality. The central Griswold clan are definitely all talented enough actors to pull that off when required, but the batshit insane tone that Daley and Goldstein pitched their ‘Vacation’ at simply won’t allow it. This is a pure laugh factory that delivers plenty of sex and potty humor (some fantastic filth, by the way, just the sort of thing that many will dismiss because they feel above that sort of thing).
It’s definitely a funny flick and far better than any ‘Vacation’ reboot had the right to be. As long as you remember how low some entries in this series sunk before this one, there’s no denying that it’s at least successful enough to rate somewhere in the middle of the franchise. That ain’t bad. Against all odds, this ‘Vacation’ is one of the unexpected comedy highlights of the summer for those who like to laugh at the rude, the crude and the ridiculous.